Land, soil, water. Three vital elements of Nature are affected by road building. But the damage keeps spreading.
“It must poison the air, too,” thought Panditji, as his bus trundled along the jungle path, “These vehicles emit all kinds of polluting gases, don't they?”. Yes, roads lead to a sharp rise in traffic.
And we all know that emissions from vehicles contain pollutants like Nitrogen oxides, Carbon monoxide, Sulphur dioxide, and suspended airborne particles from diesel and patrol. Result? Animals, plants, and human beings living and working near the roadways breathe in dirty air.
Soil, water, crops — nothing can escape the onslaught of air pollution. Roads are supposed to be agents of 'good' change, as far as the surrounding communities are concerned.
They provide better, cheaper transport, and access to markets. In a nutshell, they pave the way for a better lifestyle.
But as Panditji leaned back on his seat and closed his eyes for a quick nap, the face of the bewildered farmer — who was clearly taken by surprise by his bus a while ago — floated into his mind. The old man has probably taken this path all his life on his way back home from the fields. He still has not got used to the super track and the mechanised giants that have invaded his domain.
“So roads take over the habitat of humans, as well,” decided Panditji. Yes, they do.
The spanking new expressways and their super fast traffic cut off the traditional routes that were till then being used by the local people. They also block the way of non-motorised vehicles like bullock carts and cycles.
In other words, they completely disrupt the travel patterns, and hence the social and economic activities of the locals.
But still...a green signal!
“But hey, can we really do without roads?,” Panditji suddenly sat up,”No, we cant. So we have to find ways to build better, safer roads.”
What are the precautions that need to be taken? The following steps, if taken, may make a huge difference:
“First, find out!:
A proper, full-scale assessment must be done to find out what kind of effect a project would have on the environment, before it is launched. Satellite remote sensing technology, and aerial photography can be used very effectively in this process.
Thanks to these tool now specialists can assess and quantify the state of forests;
conditions of seas; changes in vegetation-in short everything that alters on the surface of the globe-and make predictions about the future, with very high degree of accuracy.
“Then avoid, mitigate and compensate!:
Once the scale and types of impacts are identified, steps can be taken to steer clear of major damages and to make amends, wherever possible. For instance, road projects can be kept out of the most ecologically sensitive zones. And if hill slopes just have to be cleared, then replanting can be started as early as possible, in order to prevent the worse effects of erosion.
“Keep the communites in the loop:
Not only because they would be affected the most, but because they know the terrain best. And they would be able to provide extremely valuable information on local conditions, also offer tips on the mitigation measures that would work best there.
Laws: going nowhere
Such guidelines do exist in India. To counter the effects of highway projects on environment, the Indian government has made environmental impact assessments (EIA) compulsory. The Union ministry of environment and forests (MEF) came out with the EIA notification in 1994, which include projects involving construction of highways and other major roads. But unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to the rules.
Environmentalists complain that 'it has become fashionable for the government to wave aside even sound environmental objections, dubbing them as impediments to the project's progress'.
Take the case of the East Coast road in Tamil Nadu, which stretches between the southern outskirts of Chennai and Pondicherry. The highway was freshly paved
and converted into a toll road. This decision was taken without consulting the residents of the area. Worse still, no attempt was made to compensate local people whose transportation costs shot up due to this.
Road or rail?
So if roadways usher in a set of serious ecological and social problems, are there other modes of transport that offer a better, safer deal?
“Railways, of course!”, said Panditji to himself. In fact, he would have been sitting inside a train compartment, even at this moment, if he had not given in to Panditayens yearning for the bus….
Railways can be described as the most ecofriendly option of all modes of surface transport available today. Not convinced?
Well, just listen to this. The Congressional Budget Office in the United States has done a study comparing various modes of transport in terms of energy use.
It concludes that in terms of energy per ton-mile, tucks use more than railroads.
Unit trains carrying coal require less than 900 British Thermal Unit (BTU) per ton-mile of cargo. Intercity trucks consume much more energy-they need about 3,400 BTU's per ton-mile of cargo. That's twice the rail cargo. There's more. The carrying capacity of railways is much higher than trucks. Light rail and subways, driven by electrc motors, reduce air pollution. Even diesel electric locomotives pollute less than auto travel.
And Indian Railways has a massive infrastructure—it runs around 8000 passenger trains, and owns gigantic network spread over 63,028 route kilometers. Yet, of late, it has been losing out heavily on freight share to roadways. It's share has fallen from a high of 89 per cent in 1951, to a meagre 35 per cent now.
So why have rails been lagging behind roads? Because of lop sided government policies and poor, outdated technology…IR's freight rates subsidise passenger traffic. So while its freight tariff is the highest in the world, its passenger train fares are one of the lowest.
They are 2.5 times lower than bus fares in the country. For instance, the cost of travelling from Mumbai to Hyderabad by bus is around Rs 230, but it is just Rs 69 by train! So the train fares obviously do not cover the actual costs.
Result? IR still operates on outdated technology that was imported way back in the 60's!
Perhaps it is time to think of investing in -if not a Golden, but at least a Silver Quadrilateral of rail tracks in India.
Panditji is convinced. Are you?